Malawi may not be on your tourism bucket lists but I’m hoping to change that. I really didn’t know what to expect from this visit but this low key country has quietly snuck into my heart and left a lasting impression. I spent all of my time at Lake Malawi in two locations but I wish I had more time to see other parts of the country. Most of my visit was in Cape Maclear in the Nankumba Peninsula (southern shore) of the lake. What surprised and delighted me was the commitment to sustainable tourism demonstrated here. All too often around the world, places become popular then grow quickly to accommodate tourists and often in a way that is detrimental to the environment and local communities. That’s why I am so excited to tell you what I learned about ecotourism in Cape Maclear!
Table of Contents
Malawi calls itself “The Warm Heart of Africa” and I think the title is well deserved. From the minute I arrived, I felt the warmth, starting with my incredible driver, Jacob from Red Rose Travel.
Southeast Africa between Tanzania, Zambia and Mozambique
Malawian Kwacha $1 USD = 738 MWK
Can be hard to find cash. Get as much as you can in the airport or in Lilongwe. You will need it often, even at hotels at times since credit card readers often don’t work and there are frequent power and wifi outages. Drivers, street vendors, and small restaurants don’t take credit card. Cape Maclear has no ATM machine.
You can also pay for most things with USD.
English is the official language but Chichewa is spoken by over 50% of the people.
Phrases to Learn
Thank you. Zikomo.
How Are You? Muli Bwanji?
White person or foreigner. Mizungu (this is usually used with humor as in “mizungu time” vs “african time”
There are international airports in Lilongwe and Blantyre. Flights to and from here are not cheap, as in most of Africa! I flew from Lusaka, the capital of neighboring Zambia and a one-way flight was around $175.
Most tourist travel overland. Coming from Tanzania or Zambia is a common travel route for African tourists. From the South Luangwa region of Zambia (Chipata or Mfuwe), Lilongwe is a 3 to 4 hour drive. Arranging a driver ahead of time can be tricky if you have no information. I found a driver (info above) via a Facebook group and he turned out to be a gem. Sadly I flew to Lilongwe first but he could have picked me up in Zambia and would have saved me lots of time and money. You live and learn I guess.
I met other tourists in Zambia who literally just picked a taxi driver who looked professional and he ended up becoming their driver and took them to Lake Malawi. The cost of a roundtrip drive between Lilongwe and Cape Maclear on the Lake is around $200 USD.
There are buses from the major cities such as Lilongwe and Blantyre to Lake Malawi. They are inexpensive but can take a long time. The smaller van type buses often wait until they are full. I heard stories of people waiting several hours for the bus to leave. Also when they stop and let people off, they may wait AGAIN to fill up. If you go by bus, the big bus seems to be the better option for speed.
Like all travel, you have to balance your budget constraints with time constraints and figure out what works best for you. I often never have enough time, so I end up spending more.
Cape Maclear is the busiest resort of Lake Malawi and this may be because this stretch of the lake is incredibly clear and calm. This is a true African village and the encroachment of tourism has not seemed to ruin its authentic charm. Part of this reason is the commitment of the lodge owners to sustainable tourism. There is so much more than meets the eye to this village and there is no better way to learn about this than the Sinthana Tour.
I am thankful for Andy, the manager at The Funky Cichlid who suggested this tour to me since she thought it fit the vibe of my blog. I immediately wanted to do it so she set it up for me following morning.
I met with a man named Brighten Ndawala, who is the founder of this project. Sinthana means “exchange” in Chichewa. He wants to foster an exchange of ideas and this project was started 10 years ago with the aim of making the community self-sustainable and independent of international aid. Brighten grew up in this community and like many here, started off selling bracelets to tourists near the lake. After losing his father at a young age he needed to support his family. HIs mother encouraged him to go to school, which he did, including college. He came back to Cape MacClear to help his community and to encourage education.
Brighton started doing these community tours to support his project. The tour is roughly 4 hours long from 9 am – 1 pm and costs $13 USD. Included in this tour are a visit to a local tea room and lunch at a local home.
The Sinthana project is based around a school for 3 to 5 year olds. They have classrooms A, B and C. The children learn English, math, geography and are taught about wildlife and nature. They have a library that the community can use. There are books for all the different grades an entire section with childrens’ books about HIV/AIDS.
I overdosed on cuteness here as all the children simultaneously yelled “Wel-Kom” over and over and over. If you are lucky you will get surrounded, hugged and hands held all while trying to high five every child. I never have children in the US get so excited over me! This is how Beyonce must feel…
Next, we walked through the school property where they have a garden and chicken coop. The children are taught how to grow various vegetables and raise chickens for both eggs and meat. The vegetables are sold to the villagers at a low price and also used for school meals. I was told the chickens for eggs spend time outside the coop but the meat chickens do not. I wasn’t thrilled to see this but at least the coop was large and clean and the birds weren’t crammed together.
The children are also taught some basic nutrition and fed a well-rounded meal every day, other than just nsima. Nisma is what many traditionally have eaten. It is cornmeal or maize and is often the reason you see horrible photos of malnourished poor children with bloated bellies. Eating only this provides calories and makes one feel full, but doesn’t provide enough protein. Here at the school, the children get a mix of nsima, rice, beans, greens, millet as well as chicken and eggs.
After this, we walked through the market area of the village where locals sell produce and other things. I purchased a few huge avocados here because I needed some avo toast!
One of the best local products in Malawi is peanuts and peanut butter. It is just as good as the one I grind myself at Whole Foods. Malawi grown products also include coffee, tea, rice and gin. I actually don’t really like rice but I couldn’t get enough Malawi rice. The secret ingredient is clearly magic.
This teahouse isn’t well marked and I would have missed it completely. Men mostly sit inside and watch soccer while the backyard is where women sit. This is the cooler and nicer spot, I think. Via translation by Brighten, the proprietor (who was a lovely woman who is a grandmother but looks younger than me), explained how she makes her famous “scones’. To me, this is just really good homebaked bread…sort of like a brioche or monkey bread, but they call it “scone”. The tea is local and delicicous Malawi tea.
This is a fisherman village after all so it was cool to see where it all happens. There is a stretch of the lake where the beach has been transformed into drying racks and smoking racks for all the fresh catch with the fishing boats all lined up on the beach. It is quite an operation!. We waved to Brighten’s wife who works here. The fish is either boiled, smoked or dried. They have their sardine equivalent called usiba, tigerfish, chambo and a large catfish called kampango. This is much cleaner than catfish I am used to because it comes from a super clean clearwater lake.
We visited the house of a guy named Jefferson who runs a paper recycling project. He is also an artist, and a good one at that. He and his wife took me through the whole process of paper recycling which was fascinating. First, the paper scraps are soaked for several days, then pounded into a pulp (it’s not easy by the way).
I have behind the scene video of all of this on my Instagram Malawi Highlights.
Next, the pulp is captured onto these screens.
Once collected onto the screen, the screen is inverted onto a metal sheet and the paper dries in the sun.
After the paper dries, it is ready to be used. Jeffrey uses it to make beautiful art which he then sells. A portion of this helps the Sinthana project. The art is beautiful and depicts typical Lake Malawi scenes.
This is another notable place in the village. The shop is run by women who have been making products from recycled material for years. They are in full control of the shop its profits. Click the link to learn more about the recycling efforts in Cape Maclear.
The last photo at the bottom shows me with my beautiful new skirt made in less than a day by this lovely man. There are many places to buy gorgeous fabric and have clothes made here!
The last stop was my favorite…lunch. Brighton and I sat in the yard while a few women from the neighborhood prepared lunch for us, using some of the vegetables from the school’s garden. For this tour, they are given money and supplies to make the food and the home where lunch is served rotates through the village to give many different families a chance to host and benefit.
It was fun to watch the ladies cooking and I learned some local phrases. I only remember okama which means “delicious”. The lunch was traditional and extremely yummy. I had 2 plates! They served nsima, which is a staple food throughout Africa, rice (local Malawi rice which smells divine), kidney beans, pumpkin greens, and peanut sauce. Peanuts are another local product and they make powder for cooking.
This is a really entertaining and educational tour and I can’t recommend it enough. I also highly recommend a visit to Cape Maclear. I was impressed by the cleanliness, the dedication to conservation, the recycling efforts, the warmth of the people and the adorable children. What really stood out to me was how happy and loved the children appeared. Also, they don’t beg from tourists. They just want your attention and to say “Hello” or to wave and “high-five” which is always endearing to me. I loved being greeted with exuberant smiles by basically every child. I have traveled in many developing nations and children begging from tourists is a sad reality. Brighten doesn’t tolerate this and teaches children that they can’t expect something for doing nothing and they don’t want to foster a system where white tourists are seen as coming to “save” them.
There is so much more to the village of Cape Maclear than one would easily see on their own and today I learned many of its wonderful secrets.
After this I went back to Funky Cichlid, first stopping at the Cape Mac Lodge for homemade ice cream. I had banana and guava. Seriously the best ice cream in Africa.
I stayed at the Funky Cichlid, a hotel/hostel right on the Lake in Cape Maclear. I had a private room but the bathroom is shared as typical in a hostel. This place had more of guesthouse feel than a hostel. It felt like a big family living room where everybody hung out. There is a bar, restaurant they rent out water sports equipment such as kayaks, paddle boards and snorkels.
This was the restaurant and hang out area at the Funky Cichlid. The panoramic views of the lake at sunset make it the place to be. Not to mention the food here was surprisingly amazing. The fish curry was one of the best things I’ve ever eaten and I’m determined to get that recipe!
I had way too much fun here thanks to Andy and the staff, as well as staff from neighboring hotels and businesses who came here to hang out. I was really impressed with their commitment to the community and the desire to build the tourist industry here in a responsible way.
I’ll be back Cape Maclear! Thanks for the hospitality!
Disclaimer: I was hosted by the Funky Cichlid who also paid for my Sinthana Tour. As always, all opinions are strictly my own.
Are you interested in cultural or eco-travel? Tell me what places you’ve visited that are dedicated to sustainable tourism!